Data

Former Microsoft chief launches government data site

Former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer Editorial credit: imagemaker / Shutterstock.com 

Former Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer spent $10 million building an online tool to make government financial data more relevant to taxpayers.

This Tax Day, Steve Ballmer unveiled the USAFacts.org website, a collection of government financial data that allows Americans to see where their tax money is spent.

Ballmer, formerly head of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, funded the effort to the tune of $10 million, according to a New York Times story announcing the new site.

The site is designed to give interested taxpayers a deep dive into where their money goes. The site is searchable but also offers reports modeled on the quarterly and annual financial disclosure statements public companies file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Deputy Director of the Sunlight Foundation Alex Howard commended Ballmer's effort to join the transparency movement, but he noted that the project seems curiously disconnected from official open data projects and the coming disclosures of federal financial activity required under the Data Act.

"It doesn't seem like Mr. Ballmer talked to people in Washington and in the open government community writ large about what existed already and what would be useful," Howard said.

Ballmer's site combines data from federal, state and local sources to give a complete picture of government spending, government employment and other data.

"The contention is that federation is the difference" between Ballmer's database and other transparency projects, Howard said, adding, "I am skeptical of that claim."

Additionally, Howard pointed out that the site did not publish its data in an open, reusable format.

"The copyright notice at the bottom of the page does not give me hope around permissiveness," he said, contrasting Ballmer's project to the 2014 Data USA data visualization project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It is surprising to me it was not open from the beginning," he said. "My experience tells me that if you are not open from the beginning, it's hard to go back and fix it."

Eric Gilliespie, founder of Govini, a contracting intelligence tool that relies on government data, praised the effort.

"Government data is a dark, scary basement into which few actually venture," Gillespie told FCW in an email. "Any effort to improve transparency, especially in a political environment of constantly disputed facts, should be lauded. My hope is that Steve's initiative will serve as a flashlight for those brave souls who trundle down the stairs in search of data-based facts over emotion-based rhetoric," he said.

Executive Director of the Data Foundation Hudson Hollister said that Ballmer's project is "the first time someone has taken the breadth of data sources" to put this scale of federal, state and local financial data in one place.

The $10 million spent on the effort, Hollister pointed out, "is in the same range the government itself has spent to try to transform its own information … into open data."

However, he cautioned against thinking about the site as a "management tool."

"Agencies cannot use USAFacts.org to manage to their missions or manage to their functions," he said. As of now, Hollister said, "this is more like an interactive report" than a "data resource," adding that the site "is not a data platform. It's an aggregation platform."

On that front, Hollister did point out that 2014 Data Act requires agencies to report their financial data to USASpending.gov, which a data transparency team from the Department of Treasury has been working on since the law's passage.

Hollister noted that the DATA Act's first submission deadline in May will provide the USAFacts.org site with access to greater, more granular financial detail. That data, which connects the dots on federal spending from the appropriations process through agency expenditure, is scheduled to be published for public use on USASpending.gov.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

Featured

  • Contracting
    8 prototypes of the border walls as tweeted by CBP San Diego

    DHS contractors face protests – on the streets

    Tech companies are facing protests internally from workers and externally from activists about doing for government amid controversial policies like "zero tolerance" for illegal immigration.

  • Workforce
    By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268

    At OPM, Weichert pushes direct hire, pay agent changes

    Margaret Weichert, now acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, is clearing agencies to make direct hires in IT, cyber and other tech fields and is changing pay for specialized occupations.

  • Cloud
    Shutterstock ID ID: 222190471 By wk1003mike

    IBM protests JEDI cloud deal

    As the deadline to submit bids on the Pentagon's $10 billion, 10-year warfighter cloud deal draws near, IBM announced a legal protest.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.